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The disadvantages of outsourcing your IT environment

While outsourcing can certainly prove to be a benefit to managing your Windows network, it is not without its disadvantages. Expert Mark Arnold breaks down some of the downsides of outsourcing that every manager should be aware of.

Mark Arnold

In a previous article, the advantages to outsourcing your Windows environment and other infrastructure services were discussed. Many of you took the poll and told us that Information Technology (IT) outsourcing can have many disadvantages. This article discusses the disadvantages outsourcing can bring to your IT infrastructure.

When the IT department is taken over by an outsourcer you will see some changes. Some of these changes can be good for you and your organization -- but not all will be. The outsourcer will make a great deal of noise about its ability to leverage its support organization and your contribution to that organization. This makes it sound like a good thing for your organization in that you get a wider range of skills and you don't have to employ any additional staff to achieve it. Also, it suggests a good prospect for you because it gives you a career path outside your current employers' structure without actually changing jobs. As Ira Gershwin wrote; "It ain't necessarily so."

No bed of roses

The tight integration with the outsourcer's help desk and systems management solutions, which I addressed in my last article, is a double-edged sword.

Here are some reasons to be wary:

  • Longer resolution time. Typically, any problem with a server that you control will take significantly longer to resolve when you're relying on an outside company to solve it. Before being outsourced, you would have been able to go to the server room or at least access it using Remote Desktop and act quickly and directly using your knowledge and experience. Now that your are outsourcing the support for the server, you may find yourself constrained and possibly unable to control the server in the manner that is most appropriate to the problem at hand. Remember that if performance is merely degraded, you may not be given permission to do anything about the application until a time that is convenient for the outsourcer but inconvenient for you and your staff.

    Server and Active Directory permissions are almost always changed. Settings pertaining to the operating system are set in a way that only personnel in the data center or remote support center are able to control such things as drive configuration, Registry settings or patch levels. If you have an application problem, rest assured that the problem will come straight back to your lap, but you will have one hand tied behind your back while you are troubleshooting and resolving the problem.

  • Patch management is becoming more complicated. Patch management is always an area of heated debate. Traditionally, IT structures have the ability to control which patches are applied to their servers and, more importantly, when those patches are to be applied. Support teams from outsourced providers are often constrained by a contract that is written by the customer to keep operating systems and applications patched to a degree that sometimes may not sit well with third-party application vendors.

    These vendors may often be focused on their product's functionality rather than on certifying it with a given service pack or patch. For example, there are many applications out there that are still only certified to run on Windows 2000 Server, with no prospect of them being approved for use on Windows Server 2003 in the future. Major releases aside, there is always a time lag between minor releases such as service packs and patches that application vendors take a long time to approve from a supportability perspective. You will receive a great deal of pressure from the centralized operating system support teams within the outsourcing organization to take patches that might not be even remotely relevant to your server(s) but are deemed essential by the centralized teams to allow them to conform with their schedule of the contract. Be prepared for some difficult conversations with the outsourcers'centralized teams, the Service Management organization and almost certainly with the software vendor or its support people.

  • Stifled innovation. Innovation will also be a challenge for you personally. No matter what the marketing hype says, innovations and new technologies and ideas will present a challenge. Your contract may not contain a provision to develop the infrastructure using existing technology in a manner that will enable you to be part of the future within the organization. The kind of research & development activity that would have been done during an internal undertaking at no visible cost to the project is not always possible within an IT outsourcing arrangement. Projects under an outsourced arrangement typically are done to a tight cost model. While it might appear to you to be expensive, it takes into account the project management and other governance activities that may have been missing in your organization previously.

  • Career advancement may be stifled. An outsourcer will always bring an external team in to look at two things that affect you -- architecture and business process. Architecture is the primary affecting point here. The team will view the entire infrastructure and work closely with the business process re-engineering teams. Future designs may be implemented with only a cursory reference to what technologies are in place -- save for how to migrate away from them. Whereas before your career progression may have gone from Windows administrator to technical architecture or to an IT management role, you will find that both of those functions are now imported from the outsourcer's pool of resources, who already have the requisite experience.

    The points I mention are an extreme case. All or some -- or possibly none of them -- may come to pass, but it is important for IT managers to understand that while being subjected to an IT outsourcing agreement is generally a good thing, some implications may lead you to believe that your future lies in a move to another organization. Be careful, though. Outsourcing is here to stay and you may well find yourself going through the whole cycle again.

    Mark Arnold, MCSE+M, Microsoft MVP, is a technical architect for Posetiv Ltd., a U.K.-based storage integrator. He is responsible for the design of Microsoft Exchange and other Microsoft Server solutions for Posetiv's client base in terms of the SAN and NAS storage on which those technologies reside. Arnold has been a Microsoft MVP in the Exchange discipline since 2001, contributes to the Microsoft U.K. "Industry Insiders" TechNet program and can be found in the Exchange newsgroups and other Exchange forums. You can contact him at

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